Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Apostles' Creed: Epilogue

(Except for a bibliography, this is the last in our series of more than 30 articles on the Apostles' Creed.)

"People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There never was anything so perilous as orthodoxy.  It was sanity:  and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic . . . To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect"
                                                G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

            "Is the Christian religion something revealed by God in Christ, which therefore demands our grateful obedience, or is it something to be made up by ourselves to our own specification, according to our immediate desires?  When we assent, as I am convinced we must, to the first alternative, we must also insist that the second is not only false but bogus, and that our true fulfillment and happiness is not to be found by following our own whims but by giving ourselves to God in Christ, who has given himself for us"
                                                            Eric Mascall, Saraband

            "There is nothing commonplace in the creed.  Every statement is designed to set us thinking."
                                                            A. E. Burn, The Apostles' Creed

         Theology is a way of loving God with the mind, of serving Him, as it were, in the interior courts.  Our journey through the creed, I trust, has helped make that love more well-informed and that service more effective and efficient. 
         But the life of the mind is very hard work.  Error and hazard lie around us on every side.  We find, often to our dismay, how much easier it is to be wrong than right.  The truth is a treasure, elusive but valuable.  We must seek it diligently and with the circumspection proper to the task.  We acknowledge gratefully, therefore, every reliable signpost left for us by those courageous men and women who walked the path of faith before us.  One of the finest and most enduring of those signs, I am convinced, is the Apostles' Creed, that simple yet profound affirmation wrought in the crucible of hard human experience and careful, enlightened reflection upon God's revelation in Christ to a fallen world.  In that sense, the Apostles' Creed is like a map, laying out before us the safest routes of theological exploration and the dangers that attend them, as well as the safest places of rest and the most memorable vistas.  Like any good map, the creed does its work all in the right proportions.
         The Apostles' Creed is not exhaustive.  Indeed it contains not much more than a mere hundred words.  In those hundred words, however, the very foundations of the historic Christian faith are laid and the substance of the faith is articulated.  Widespread and careful instruction in the contents of the creed, therefore, is an important first step in faithfully fulfilling the responsibilities entailed in the theologianship of all believers.  After all, you cannot well live or spread a faith that you do not understand.
         Nevertheless, much that is valuable and true in Christianity is left out of the creed, though nothing essential is overlooked.  The creed is complete, though not exhaustive.  The Apostles' Creed neither raises nor answers all questions; it summarizes a revelation and a world view from which those questions can most fruitfully arise and be addressed.  Thus, though others perhaps consider the creed's brevity a weakness, I think it profound and instructive, a lesson not to be missed:  Nearly all the issues that separate one band of Christians from another find no mention in the creed -- not the various modes of baptism, not the proper form of ecclesiastical government, not the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, not the mode of Christ's presence in the Eucharist (if any), not the relationship between church and state or Christianity and citizenship, not the forms of prayer, not the nature or extent of biblical inspiration, and not the sequence of the end times, as important as those issues undoubtedly are.  In other words, the Apostles' Creed summarizes the Christian faith in a way that has stood firm for centuries and yet manages to avoid all the pitfalls of the pervasive theological factionalism that now shamefully cleaves the Church in all directions.  In that fact lies a second profound lesson:  That which divides the various churches is normally no essential part of the Christian faith.  Under the creed's tutelage, we discern the foolishness of majoring on what it considers minor issues.
         To put a different point on it, we are responsible for what we believe, for how we believe it, and for how we apply it.  In light of that manifold responsibility, the Apostles' Creed is of great use to us because it identifies what we are obligated to profess.  From the standpoint of the creed, we learn to say "This is the faith:  Further than this we can go, but further than this we must not require; short of this we can fall, but short of this is not historic Christianity."  No doubt there is more to Christianity and to life in a fallen world than the Apostles' Creed and the doctrines contained within it, which is why I recognize the Apostles' Creed as a most serviceable theological base, but do not preclude anyone moving out from the creed in various theological or liturgical directions, or denigrate them for doing so.  I advise them, however, not to make their secondary theological decisions and directions primary or to require them of others.
         Some of our difficulties arise not from the brevity or circumspection of the creed, but from our failure properly to understand and to use what actually it does contain, which is considerable:  Christianity's answer to life's ultimate questions:  Who am I?  Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Is there a God?  What happens after death?  Is this life all there is?
         Such questions do not daunt us, for here in the creed is consolation; here is insight and truth.  This would renew the Church, this would change the world, were Christians truly to believe what they say they believe when they recite the creed, and were they courageous enough to conduct their lives accordingly.  The faith we recite ought by all means to be the faith we live.  If it were, neither the world nor we ourselves could ever be the same.

1 comment:

Mitchell Powell said...

I've never heard the of the "theologianship of all believers", but it's a good phrase and I think I'll borrow it in the future.